Tunisia’s Islamist-dominated parliament questioned two ministers Friday accused of promoting “normalization” with Israel, after Israeli tourists were allowed into the North African country, which does not recognize the Jewish state.
A motion of censure was filed last month against Tourism Minister Amel Karboul, who is accused of receiving a group of Israelis recently, and Deputy Interior Minister for Security Ridha Sfar, suspected of facilitating their entry into Tunisia.
The debate, focused on Israelis only and not all Jews, comes just a week ahead of an annual pilgrimage that draws Jews to Tunisia from around the world.
For reasons of “national security,” the government had asked for the hearing to be held behind closed doors. The majority of parliamentary group leaders said they supported that, but they failed to muster the votes necessary to force it.
Leftist MP Faycel Jadlaoui said allowing Israelis into Tunisia “undermines state sovereignty.”
“We did not have our revolution so that the first revolutionary measure taken was normalization with the Zionist entity,” he said, to enthusiastic applause from the National Assembly.
Sfar defended himself against charges of promoting normalization with Israel, saying he merely followed procedures that have been in force for years.
“The case is purely administrative… We do not deal with Israeli papers,” he said, explaining that the tourists coming from the Jewish state had been issued with Tunisian passes, because Tunis does not recognise Israeli passports.
The debate comes just weeks after Israeli tourists aboard an American cruise ship were denied entry.
In response, Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line announced that its ships would not return to Tunisia in a potentially severe blow to a struggling economy three years after the ouster of autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Sfar justified his authorizing the Israelis’ entry by the need to respond to an “international campaign” accusing Tunisia of discrimination.
Like most other countries in the Arab world, the North African nation does not recognize Israel, primarily out of solidarity with Palestinian demands for a state of their own.
But Tunisia is one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries, and some 1,500 Jews live there.
More than half are on the island of Djerba. It is there that Africa’s oldest synagogue is located, the focus of the three-day pilgrimage that begins next Friday.